arr. N Rimsky Korsakov (1886)
Mussorgsky’s life and career, which ended at the early age of 42, were in many respects a tragic case of ‘what might have been’. Unlike some composers and musicians he received a good deal of support from his parents when a youngster , the family temporarily moving the 250 miles from their home to St Petersburg partly in order to maintain the quality of his lessons; unfortunately there was an ulterior motive in the family’s move, in that they also wished to make sure that Modest and his brother maintained the family tradition of military service. Modest was enrolled in Cadet School aged 13, and, alongside his piano lessons, was subjected to a brutal disciplinary regime which drove many students to drink; although he was to graduate from the school and take up a commission in the National Guard, his life was already blighted with the early stages of alcoholism, which would bring his life to a sadly premature end.
Music, particularly the piano, had remained important to him, however, and a chance meeting with the medical chemist and amateur composer Alexander Borodin at the military hospital in St Petersburg in 1856 drew him into musical soirees run by the composer Dargomyzhsky, at which he met several major figures in Russian music, including Mily Balakirev. Balakirev was assembling around himself a school of composers to develop a truly Russian voice in music, and Mussorgsky rapidly joined the group, which included not only Borodin but also Cesar Cui and eventually Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and became known as The Five’ or ‘The Mighty Handful’. In 1858 Mussorgsky resigned his commission and turned to music full-time.
He began to interest himself in Russian history and folklore, and finished a few composing projects based on this sort of material, but life was never easy, particularly since, as a result of the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, a good deal of the Mussorgsky family estate, which had supported him, had been lost, and he had to take a job as a civil servant to support himself. In 1867 he completed the original version of a symphonic poem he called A Night on Bald Mountain, but Balakirev refused to conduct it, and Mussorgsky was never to hear it performed. In 1871 he managed to complete his magnum opus, the opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin’s historical play, but it was initially rejected and it wasn’t until 1874 that he managed to get it produced. Critics damned it, but during its short run of only a dozen performances it did at least achieve public acclaim, a source of fleeting happiness for him; nevertheless , although he was shortly also to complete the great piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), later orchestrated by many composers, most notably Ravel, he descended into alcoholism and left many works unfinished including his major opera projects, Khovanschina and Sorochinsky Fair. Finally his alcoholic/depressive behaviour saw him sacked from his job in 1880, and he died a week after his 42nd birthday, the famous red-nosed painting of him being completed only a few days before his death.
A Night on Bald Mountain was originally known as St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, based on a play by Gogol and telling the story of Chernobog, the Russian Satan, and his appearance on the eve of Witches’ Sabbath – in Russia this is in June, but of course parallel with our Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day. Mussorgsky was proud of it, and crushed when Balakirev condemned it. The composer wrote:
‘At. the head of my score I’ve put its content: Subterranean noises of supernatural voices – Apparition o the spirits of darkness and, after them, of Chemobog (The Black God) – Celebration of the Black God and the Black Service – Sabbath – At the p.eak of the Sabbath there resounds from afar the bell of a little village church; its nngmg disperses the spirits of darkness – Daybreak. The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away 1n full score , I wrote 1t 1n about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St.
John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day,,it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening w1th1n me …
Mussorgsky also inserted a choral version into Sorochinsky Fair but this of course also was never performed in his lifetime; the orchestral original was lost and only rediscovered 1n the 1960s, to be published in 1968, a century after its original compos1t1on .. It fell to his friend Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (whom some suspect of hiding the original) .to publish his version of the work in 1886, which he called A Night on a Barn Mo.untam; at the head of his version he wrote of Mussorgsky’s work: ‘In each of its various forms this work remained unpolished ,’ going on to say that he had extracted the ‘best and most appropriate’ elements ‘to give coherence and wholeness to this work.’ In this he succeeds, but, intriguingly, although one of the great orchestrators , on the evidence of the original he strips out some of Mussorgsky’s more groundbreaking orchestrational features.
The popularity of the Rimsky. version was of course ensured when Walt Disney featured a frightening animation to Leopold Stokowski’s conducting in his 1940 classic Fantasia.